A new study on Native American attitudes toward the Washington Redskins’ team name has found far more opposition to the name than previous recent studies. In light of renewed opposition last fall to the tomahawk chop, and given the increasingly obvious presence of political messaging in sports, it’s a fascinating time for the study to see light.
Will the study’s findings have an impact? Will the NFL intervene? Will the Redskins change their name at last? Let’s discuss.
New study contradicts prior findings
Conducted by the University of California-Berkeley, the study found that at least half of more than 1,000 Native Americans — a statistically significant survey pool — are in fact offended by the team’s name, and by Native American mascots and chants in general. That number rises when considering respondents who strongly identify with being Native American and those who frequently engage with their culture.
The UC-Berkeley study is a sharp departure from previous recent analyses of the team’s name. A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center study and a 2016 Washington Post survey reached similar conclusions: that only about one in 10 Native American respondents found the name offensive. A survey conducted last August by Wolvereye found that 68 percent of Native Americans weren’t offended by the name.
The Berkeley study’s authors questioned the methodology behind those prior findings, prompting them to push forward with a new analysis. “We keep seeing clear examples of Native people speaking up and protesting these problematic team names and mascots,” study co-lead author Arianne Eason, an assistant professor of psychology at Berkeley. “Yet, public opinion polls, with little methodological transparency, say that Native people are not offended. Things just don’t add up.”
Eason and University of Michigan psychologist Stephanie Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, recruited a broad, demographically diverse base of more than 1,000 Native Americans covering all 50 states and 148 tribes. Respondents were asked to use a scale of 1 to 7 to respond to a series of statements, such as:
“I think the term ‘redskin’ is respectful to Native Americans.”
“I find it offensive when sports fans wear chief headdresses at sporting events.”
“When sports fans chant the tomahawk chop, it bothers me.”
Overall, 49 percent of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the Redskins’ name is offensive, 38 percent did not deem it offensive, and the remainder were either undecided or indifferent. That number rose for culturally engaged respondents (67 percent), younger respondents (60 percent) and respondents with specific tribal affiliations (52 percent).
Who gets to be offended?
The prior surveys, combined with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s vow to never change the team’s name, had appeared to put the issue to rest in the eyes of most non-engaged sports fans. But recent opposition to the tomahawk chop — the Atlanta Braves curtailed its use following a critique from a St. Louis Cardinals player with Native American heritage — combined with the ever-more-visible presence of political activism in sports mean that the name issue won’t ever leave the Redskins.
Of note: the Kansas City Chiefs also use the tomahawk chop, which was clearly audible during Sunday’s Super Bowl. But for whatever reason, the Chiefs have eluded the spotlight that’s found the Cleveland Indians, the Braves, and Kansas City’s NFL brethren in Washington.
Some of the difference in criticism surely stems from the fact that the word “redskin” is a dictionary-defined slur against Native Americans, regardless of how Washington’s football team defines its origin and intention. Put another way: would an expansion team be able to get away with using the name “Redskins”? Would that same hypothetical team be able to name itself after the color of any race’s skin?
The primary argument in favor of the name effectively boils down to, it’s this way because it’s always been this way. That’s an argument that works just fine when dissecting legal precedent, but one that’s awfully flimsy when taking a stand against shifting cultural tides. High schools across the country have dropped the “Redskins” name and logo, and protests have followed Washington on its road schedule for half a decade.
We’re in an era where day-to-day sports are more overtly political than at any time outside of an Olympic Opening Ceremony. Military flyovers and reunions, protests during the anthem, campaign ads during the Super Bowl, athletes speaking out on political issues — it’s an environment where old assumptions are coming under new scrutiny.
Which is why this new study packs some demographic punch. One key question about matters of offense is, simply: who gets to be offended? Does the opinion of someone with no connection to Native American history or culture carry equal weight to that of a Native American? Should we give added weight to the voices, either pro or con, of those whose heritage directly intersects with the “Redskins” name?
We’ve seen this from another direction in the NFL’s recent past. Veterans offended by Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem filled comment sections, Facebook pages and email inboxes with their disgust at what they termed his unpatriotic disrespect. If we give more weight in the protest dispute to the voices of those who served, should we give more weight in the naming dispute to the voices of those with Native American blood?
We’re getting pretty far afield from the actual game of football here, so let’s bring it back inside the stadium.
Will the Redskins change their name?
On the list of immediate problems facing the Washington Redskins, the future viability of the name ranks way down on the list, far below “winning games,” “integrating a new coaching staff,” “drafting impact players,” “filling empty seats,” and “keeping an ever-more-hostile fan base from burning down FedEx Field.” A change is unlikely in the immediate future, for the simple logistical reason that there’s way too much on the to-do list.
Beyond that, though, there’s this: Snyder has enraged and disgusted the Washington fan base, by putting a substandard product on the field for two decades, among many other indignities:
Snyder knows the value of generational fandom, though, and he knows that retaining the name is the surest way to hold onto the loyalty of many long-term fans. On the other side of the coin, changing the name would surely give old-school fans infuriated by Snyder the last push they needed to switch their loyalty to, say, Baltimore.
At 55, Snyder’s a young owner, relatively speaking, meaning that absent a dramatic shove, the name’s not changing. What could prompt that shove? Well, the NFL could decide that it wants to rebrand the team for the 21st century. While the legalities of such a move are unclear, if there’s money to be made — from, say, a “retiring” Redskins name and a new, safer name like “Warriors” — the NFL will find a way to make it.
Local governments could also force Snyder’s hand. He’s made no secret of the fact that he wants a new stadium to compete with the mega-palaces of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis. But a government in Virginia, Maryland or the District of Columbia could make a land sale/lease contingent on the team finding a less controversial moniker. Snyder has attempted to use a favorable political environment to help push the stadium through necessary congressional and administration approvals; will those prospects change if the White House or Congress changes hands later this year? How much is Snyder willing to give up to get his new stadium?
The Washington Redskins aren’t changing their name anytime soon. But the forces demanding that change clearly aren’t going away, either.
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